I didn’t watch John Lewis’s funeral. I didn’t go back to view any of the eulogies. That’s because I have my own. One that’s haunted me for decades. Oh yes, as a young reporter for CNN in Atlanta I had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with Rep. Lewis shortly after he was elected. But this story reaches further back.
I was a school kid on Bloody Sunday. The images of John Lewis and the other brave souls who were violently stopped by the thugs who masqueraded as law enforcement officers flickered on our 19-inch Zenith black and white TV. It was the first time I’d ever heard of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a town called Selma, Alabama. Indeed, for most of us, these are scenes that seem remote—something you see on TV or read about in the paper but certainly well out of our sheltered sphere.
Push the clock ahead to 1986. Working out of CNN’s Southeast Bureau in Atlanta, I covered the Deep South, as well as any other place I was sent. But on this day I was assigned to a story in Selma. Those past images played back in fast-forward as we neared the town. Indeed, our entire crew was tense. We knew the history.
Our assignment was to profile Lutheree Reese a Black woman who had lived for 16 years in a fetid slum known as Slave City. No electricity, no running water. Basically…one-story garrets. Concrete block shacks. The news was Slave City was finally being shut down and the remaining few residents would be moved to living quarters at a closed Air Force base.
Without the benefit of today’s navigation tools, we got lost and stopped to ask someone on the street to direct us to Slave City. The slack-jawed redneck just stared at us, then twisted his pasty face into a shit-eating smile and responded in his big ol’ drawl, “y’all wanna know wheah Slave City eeees? Just follow the (love juices.)” He used a much more graphic term. We rolled up the window and worked it out ourselves. Had Selma really changed since the 60’s? Did the efforts of John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson and all the others fighting for basic civil rights go in vain?
When we met Lutheree at her Slave City shack she was gathering a few remaining items. She almost seemed wistful about leaving. It’s all she knew. Within 15 minutes we arrived at her new home. A tidy apartment. We captured her tentative entry through the door. She wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Lutheree took a slow look around. When she found the first light switch she didn’t really know what it was for. After being told she flipped the switch on and off and on and off and on and off and watched the table lamp’s correspondent actions.
But the best was yet to come.
She found her way to the bathroom. After being told how the hot and cold faucets worked on the sink Lutheree twisted them a couple of times. Then came the toilet. Oh my, the toilet. We had to explain how that worked. She’d never used one of those before after a lifetime of squatting over holes in an outhouse. Lutheree lifted the lid on the toilet seat so she could see the bowl, and then she found the flush lever. She pulled it down once and stared at the action it triggered. Then she looked at us and asked if she could do it again. Of course. And she did. One, two, three, ten times she pulled that lever and every time her smile grew broader and broader and tears came to her eyes….and ours too. Such a simple thing, but so monumental when you’ve lived your life to that point deprived of even the most basic convenience.
After leaving Lutheree and still crying/smiling about her first, triumphant flush toilet experience, we ventured downtown to interview Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman. The same Joe Smitherman who was in office on Bloody Sunday—a then segregationist who later came around and appointed African-American citizens to various positions in city government.
The way to city hall took us over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We drove slowly, taking in the significance of an infamous historic venue and imagined the horrific scene that took place on the span 20 years earlier.
Smitherman welcomed us, very comfortable with TV crews, and couldn’t help mentioning he’d once tangled with Dan Rather so a 34 year old kid like me wasn’t going to intimidate him. That wasn’t the point. I just wanted to know why—why was a place like Slave City allowed to last that long? He just sort of smiled, and with a straight face said Slave City just perpetuated the city’s infamous reputation but that “Blacks have made more social progress here than elsewhere in Alabama.”
On the ride back to Atlanta things were quiet for a bit as we let it all sink in. Now it’s risen to the top of my mind again as I think about the late, wonderful, brave John Lewis.
He gave everything…his body, his freedom, his life’s work fighting for the simple concept of equality for all of us, for someone like Lutheree Reese. Oh, Lutheree. That giant smile, those wide eyes, those appreciative tears…as she flicked on an electric light, turned the faucet for running water and flushed a toilet for the first time. The opportunity to finally live in simple, human decency…isn’t that what John Lewis was fighting for during his magnificent life?
That’s my eulogy to him.